In 2015 an intense heat wave engulfed Pakistan and since then lower intense heatwaves have become a recurring phenomenon. Though heat waves were expected this year as well, the intensity and duration have rung alarm bells for environmentalists. A heat wave is an extreme weather event and is declared when the maximum temperature is above forty degrees Celsius or persists at five degrees Celsius above normal for three consecutive days. The deadly 2015 heat wave occurred in June and claimed seven hundred lives in Pakistan. This year’s heat wave began in March with intervals where temperatures eased and lasted till mid of May. Generally, the province of Sindh, Balochistan and certain areas of Punjab undergo heat waves in May and June.
This year a severe early-season heat wave, remarkable for its early onset- frequency and intensity-engulfed the country. Pakistan witnessed the hottest month of March since 1961 and the hottest April in the last sixty-one years. On April 29th, Jacobabad became the hottest city on earth. Several cities in Sindh and Balochistan recorded temperatures above forty-five degrees Celsius in April while above fifty degrees Celsius in May. A total of sixty-five people across Pakistan have been reported dead due to this heat wave. The only reason this heat wave was not as fatal as the one in 2015 is because of the low levels of humidity. Higher humidity levels with such a high temperature would have had a disastrous impact on public health, and the death toll could have been exponentially higher.
Understanding the matter better
Generally, Pakistan sees much more moderate temperatures in the month of March and April. Extreme temperatures and scorching summer heat begin in May. India is undergoing a similar situation where March became the hottest recorded in the region’s history while April became the hottest in over a hundred years. This year much like the previous year has been dubbed “spring-less”. The transitional spring period between the winter and summer seasons did not occur last year or this year. Researchers opine that it is too early to classify this as a permanent trend; however, these extreme disturbances in patterns and extreme weather events are in line with assessments made by climate change experts. Frequent heat waves, disruptive monsoons and urban flooding are cited as some of the signs and effects of high vulnerability to climate change. The Global Climate Risk Index cites Pakistan as among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Heat waves trigger a number of cascading events with the potential to disrupt daily lives even further. From public health to energy consumption, from glacier melting to agriculture, this extreme weather event leaves impacts all facets of human activity. Residents in various localities undergoing heat waves suffered from a number of heatstroke-induced illnesses, including acute kidney injury (AKI), watery diarrhea and gastroenteritis. Though official reports claim approximately sixty deaths from heatstroke, it is believed that the actual number is much higher. Three people alone have died of acute water diarrhea in the suburbs of Dadu city, where the temperature soared to forty-nine degrees Celsius. Pakistan’s electricity shortage further exacerbated the effects of a heat wave as electricity is the main source of artificial cooling.
In the month of April and May, Pakistan’s rural and urban areas suffered hours of daily power outages. The entire cooling mechanism rests on fans and air conditioners. The high electricity consumption prompted by uncharacteristically high temperatures for these months contributed to an energy shortfall. Paradoxically, on the one hand, electricity provides a cooling mechanism against warming temperature, while on the other hand, the generation of electricity depends on the burning of fossil fuels which is one of the main sources of climate change.
60 % of Pakistan’s energy requirements are met via the burning of fossil fuels
To mitigate the effects of climate change, including heat waves, a shift to renewable energy sources is inevitable. According to experts, Pakistan’s crops are accustomed to high temperatures. The problem this year has been the earlier onset of higher temperatures.
Certain temperature is required at a certain time of growth, and the arrival of above forty-degree temperature at the time when crops need a lower temperature to survive damages the entire harvest as such last year when Pakistan had to import wheat last year despite being a net exporter. According to Aman Ullah Khan, the country head of the environment and climate change unit at the UNDP, the impacts of climate change are one of the reasons behind Pakistan’s flailing wheat harvest. Pakistan’s mango production is also expected to take a hit due to unusual temperature levels. The All Pakistan Fruit & Vegetable Exporters, Importers & Merchants Association announced an expected twenty percent drop in mango exports this year, while production of green vegetables is also anticipated to fall. Farmers in Balochistan claim that the heat wave destroyed their peach and apple harvests.
Wheat crops in the region have also been severely damaged by the intense heat. UN Convention to Combat Desertification has already linked low yield to high temperatures. This heat wave is likely to contribute to lower harvest and increased food insecurity. Pakistan houses seven thousand glaciers, higher than any region outside the poles. Generally, in May and June, glaciers melt rapidly due to extreme temperature, and as a result, a phenomenon called glacial lake outburst flood occurs.
Often times bridges and dams unable to hold the glacial lake erupt, causing flooding. This year owing to heat waves in March and April, glacial lake Shishpar formed a month earlier in April. The lake flooded, resulting in the collapse of the Hassanabad bridge in Hunza. This entire ordeal was expected to occur a month later, signaling the beginning of extreme climate change vulnerability in Pakistan. A persistent heat wave can dry up water reservoirs as well. According to Pakistan’s Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman, the heat wave has affected Pakistan’s water supply while “big dams are at a dead level right now”. In Jacobabad, one of the hottest cities in April, city canals have gone dry, resulting in water scarcity for irrigation.
Heat waves occur because of the rise in global warming and climate change
Pakistan, despite being one of the most vulnerable to climate change, accounts lower than one percent global emissions rate. The GHG emissions are the main culprit behind warming temperature and climate change. Investing in green energy, reducing reliance on fossil fuel burning, urban planning, protection of local ecosystems and reforestation are some of the policy options Pakistan could choose from. In the short term, Pakistan can adopt policies to provide relief to the population during heat waves.
Various cooling mechanisms and heightened vigilance and monitoring by the healthcare sector during a heat wave can protect the population. In the longer term, a shift to renewable energy and the plantation of trees can mitigate the crises. The reduction in global carbon emissions is critical for Pakistan’s survival. Along with national, a global reorientation toward clean energy and reduction of GHG emissions is the only route to protect the vulnerable nations from climate catastrophes.